Best and Worst Sports headphones

While the popularity boom of digital-audio devices like the Apple iPod has allowed people to easily take music with them for training sessions and outdoor adventures, earbud-type earphones are usually less than optimal for athletes. In addition to mediocre sound quality, standard earbuds may fall out during rigorous activity or in cold weather.

Until recently, I’d put up with the cheapo earbuds that came with my Apple iPod. But earlier this winter, for some perspective on the other end of the quality spectrum, I decided to test four high-end headphone models with prices starting at around $150.

I’ll start with the biggest disappointment: The BlueTake BT420 EX Bluetooth Wireless Sports Headphones (www.bluetake.com), which uses the radio-frequency-based Bluetooth signal technology to allow you to listen to music wirelessly, performed very mediocre considering its $229 price tag.

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The wireless function is cool, as you don’t have to deal with cords, and the audio quality is far better than what I get from my Apple earbuds, but there are a couple major design flaws: The hinge on the BlueTake’s support bow scraped the back of my neck with each step, and the headphone design feels heavy and floppy on the ears.

Of the other three earphones I tested, Shure’s E3c model may be the most logical, price-conscious choice if you want great sound in a design compatible with activities like trail running or Nordic skiing. Though I think the $179 list price is still mighty steep, Shure’s E3c (www.shure.com) might be worth the price for athletic audiophiles. They are worn with the cord snaking down your back and the earphone tucked in behind your ear; a nice, secure setup for activities.

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The Shure E3c comes with a kit containing eight different reusable sleeves to fit almost any ear type. I found their sound quality to be rich, full and nearly as good as the Etymotic Research’s $149 6i Isolator model.

Speaking of which, the 6i Isolator from Etymotic Research (www.etymotic.com), which has a flanged tip to squeeze in and fit extra tight in the ear, is an excellent, top-end earbud made for studio musicians and audiophiles. The earplug-like fit cancels out ambient noise to work like those oversized earmuff headphones. The cord is extremely thin and lightweight, however, making me wonder how they’d stand up to harsh athletic activity over a few months.

If price is really no object, there is a step up from the Etymotic Research and Shure models. Ultimate Ears’ UE-5c are custom-fit earphones that require a $50 trip to an audiologist for silicon ear channel impressions. From there, your ear molds are shipped to Ultimate Ears (www.ultimateears.com) to use in the manufacture of custom-fit, completely individualized, anatomically precise earphones. Total cost: $550.

With dual micro speakers in each earphone and almost complete noise cancellation, the UE-5c’s were created as stage monitors for the likes of Van Halen and Linkin Park. But they actually do an excellent job in an athletics setting, staying securely in the ear at all times and giving over-the-top amazing sound.

If anything, the UE-5c’s cancelled out noise too well, as I could hear my heartbeat and my feet pounding the pavement during quiet interludes or in the pauses between songs. This much sound blockage can actually be dangerous. I would not recommend biking or running near traffic with the Ultimate Ear or Etymotic Research models.

One final note: If you do put the cash down for a top-end pair of earphones, realize that the sound quality will only be as good as its source. If you saved songs in a compressed setting to fit more onto an iPod or similar device, you’ll notice the watered-down quality with these types of headphones.

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